If popular music is ten driven by advances in technology, Daniel Johnston’s work was pro that sincerity, simplicity and primitive recording equipment can deliver enduring results. Johnston, who has died a suspected heart attack aged 58, became renowned for the haunting honesty and directness his music. Its lo-fi quality emphasised the raw appeal his voice, which was sometimes likened to the vintage recordings Hank Williams or the bluesman Robert Johnson. Johnston himself cited the Beatles as his biggest influence.
He accumulated a committed following on the alternative and underground rock circuit, and among his admirers and supporters were Kurt Cobain Nirvana (a particular fan Johnston’s 1983 album Yip/Jump Music), Jason Pierce Spiritualized, Jeff Tweedy Wilco, Beck, members the Butthole Surfers and Sonic Youth. Yet during the early years his career, in the 1980s, Johnston’s work appeared only on a string crude homemade audio cassettes released on his own Stress Records label, which he used to give away.
After he moved to Austin, Texas, in the early 80s, his tapes helped make him a local celebrity, though this did not bring any big-money record deals. He gained a significant prile-boost in 1985 when he was filmed for a slot on the MTV show The Cutting Edge, which was focusing on Austin’s “new sincerity” music movement. This brought rapid national acclaim, and, as his tapes made their way from coast to coast, Johnston became an eminently droppable name on the underground circuit.
The Dead Milkmen recorded his song Rocket Ship, and Yo La Tengo and the Pastels were among several artists who recorded his Speeding Motorcycle. In the late 80s the Homestead label reissued some Johnston’s early recordings on vinyl, and his album It’s Spooky (1989) was a collaboration with Jad Fair the band Half Japanese.
Daniel was born in Sacramento, California, the youngest five children Bill Johnston, a former second world war fighter pilot, and his wife, Mabel. Daniel described it as a Christian fundamentalist household. The family later moved to New Cumberland, West Virginia, where Daniel graduated from Oak Glen high school. After a brief, abortive stint at Abilene Christian University in Texas, he studied art at a branch Kent State University near his family’s home. During this period he began creating his homemade tapes in the family basement.
In 1983 he went to stay with his brother, Dick, in Houston. It was there that he recorded Yip/Jump Music and Hi, How Are You? on a $59 Sanyo mono tape machine. He moved to San Marcos, Texas, and then, after spending five months working as a corndog seller with a travelling carnival, he settled in Austin. Of the carnival he commented: “Everybody around me was a great story that never stopped, and for the first time I realised how much freedom you have to do what you want.”
In 1988 Johnston went to New York to record his album 1990 with the producer Mark Kramer. It was the first time he had been in a pressional studio environment. However, this coincided with a sudden worsening in Johnston’s mental health. He suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and it was surely no coincidence that his first album, from 1981, was called Songs Pain.
In 1990 he was almost killed when he suffered a manic episode while flying in a light aircraft piloted by his father. Johnston became convinced he was Casper the Friendly Ghost – a cartoon character who appeared in Johnston’s songs and drawings – and threw the aircraft’s ignition key out the window, forcing his father to crash-land. They suffered only minor injuries, but Johnston was committed to a psychiatric hospital.
It was at this point that Johnston was signed to Atlantic Records, though the sole album to result from this contract was Fun (1994). It was not a success, and he was dropped from the label.
In 2004 he released the two-disc set The Late Great Daniel Johnston: Discovered Covered. Disc one comprised cover versions Johnston’s songs by such artists as Tom Waits, Beck, Eels, Mercury Rev, and the Flaming Lips, while disc two contained Johnston’s original versions. The Devil and Daniel Johnston (2005), a documentary portrait by Jeff Feuerzeig, won the directing award at the 2005 Sundance festival.
Aside from his music, Johnston was highly regarded for his cartoons and artwork. Some his pieces were included in the 2006 Whitney Biennial exhibition at the Whitney Museum American Art in New York. In 2012 he released the comic book Space Ducks: An Infinite Comic Book Musical Greatness. Jung Kim’s photo book Daniel Johnston: Here (2013) was assembled from pictures taken over a five-year period, and a matching travelling exhibition visited Austin, London and New York. In autumn 2017 Johnston played a five-date tour that he said marked his retirement from live performance.
He is survived by Dick, who was also his manager, and by his sisters, Margy, Sally and Cindy.
• Daniel Dale Johnston, singer, songwriter and artist, born 22 January 1961; died 10 September 2019